Yesterday I came across a comment in a LinkedIn discussion that suggested that there are too many MFA programs out there turning out second-rate playwrights and screenwriters. The thrust of this person’s thinking was that as a result the market is being flooded with new mediocre scripts that are actually doing damage to the profession. And inferring that most of those who graduate from these programs–in addition to sending out their inferior scripts to every theatre, production company, and literary agent in the country–are looking for teaching jobs that will allow them to turn out even more wannabe successful writers, creating a vicious cycle and further exasperating the problem as the years tick on.
Having taught scriptwriting for over three decades on both the undergrad and grad level, worked professionally in new play and screenplay development nearly as long, and had many of my own scripts developed and produced at writers’ conferences and productions, I have to say the comment may have hit on something that’s been bugging me for years.
To my mind, the only kind of MFA program in playwriting and/or screenwriting that is worth its salt is when working professionals are doing the teaching and the focus of the program is on the serious testing of student work with other working professional collaborators. Student scripts need to be put through the ringer of a carefully structured lab environment where actors, directors, designers and other theatre and film artists are allowed to get their hands on student writing and see what works and what doesn’t. An environment where the student writer engages directly with seasoned people who have been in the trenches for a long time–and still are–and who know how to give voice to material, spot strengths and weaknesses, and offer targeted suggestions for improvement in a way that may sometimes hurt, but is offered sincerely and can be trusted.
It’s this kind of writing program on the graduate level that is sorely lacking (with a few notable exceptions) and the main reason there’s a growing negative attitude in the professional world about the perceived treadmill of MFA programs turning out writers whose work has not been truly battle-tested and that, for the most part, forever remains gathering dust on the page. So when I was approached with the prospect of designing yet another new MFA in playwriting and screenwriting, I jumped at the chance to put together a different kind of program that would be truly hands-on and have the capacity to turn out writers of plays and screenplays who know the ropes and whose work reflects a professionalism several notches above the norm.